He is not only a Labour leader, but a visioner and an ardent business man who has been able to put his union in the forefront of enterprises through diversification. The President of the National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE) in this interview explained the reason why the union is not relenting in expanding the frontiers of its businesses.
He also speaks on what the union did to ensure that no worker lost his or her job and are paid their salary without any surcharge during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oyelekan equally talks on effect of sophisticated machines now preferred by the employers on jobs of the union’s members, expatriates quota issues, infrastructures problem in the country and others.
Why another monumental hotel
A good leadership will be studying the strength of the country’s economy and globally there’s economic instability. For example what the whole world experienced last year, COVID-19 pandemic, nobody ever envisaged that such incident would come, but it happened eventually. Even at that, it doesn’t mean that everybody would die, hence we still have to think of ways to survive.
Besides that, our sector has been facing the problem of artificial intelligence, lots of sophisticated machines now preferred by our employers have taken over jobs of our members. The machines have already reduced manpower to about 10 percent. The way things are going, we are losing members on monthly basis. In 2010, our membership was about 50 million, which by 2015, reduced to about 7.5 but now we are not up to 5 million. As a result of that we have to envisaged what the future holds for us because as we are losing members, we are losing check off dues, which is the mainstay of the union’s finance. That informs our diversification into business to support the union. Hence we used all the little resources we are getting from check off dues to finance the business. Aside from the initial success, we have decided to expand the horizon of our businesses because nobody actually knows what the future holds because our employers that now rely on machines to replace manpower may not anytime sooner change from that option. We commenced our diversification with hotel in Lagos, with the success recorded, we felt we could expand and look at other states in Nigeria. We looked at Abuja, but saw that the cost of construction would be enormous. We then decided on Oyo state, Ibadan precisely, bearing in mind that it’s the largest city in Africa. It’s equally a commercial centre. In terms of supervision, as the National secretariat is also located in Lagos, we believed Lagos have closer proximity to Ibadan, that also informed our decision to build in Ibadan. To God be the glory, we got a land in Apata, which is in the heart of Ibadan and we have commenced building.
Experience running business in Nigeria
Our experience running business in Nigeria is not palatable, the more reason when I look at most of our Employers, I used to pity them. But life has to go on, right now with the conditions in the country, the thing is the profit will be reduced, there would be profit, but below expectation. Everyone in business, even the hawker on the street wants to make profit, but it’s now very minimal. But our joy is that we can still be able to provide jobs for many Nigerians. As at today we have about 180 workers on our pay roll. It’s a standard, we are happy to have initiated that in our sector. Also with the extension going on Ibadan, this is not an exaggeration by the completion of the hotel, we would have nothing less than 60 Nigerians working there. If we add that to the existing 180, we would be talking of over 240 workers. For us in the food sector, we believe we have to contribute our quota to rid the country of unemployment problem. The same thing is being done by our sister union in the medical and health. Presently we have some of our predecessors and Employers who are thinking of doing the same thing. We believe that government alone cannot solve the problem of unemployment in the country. All the institutions, organisations have to contribute their quotas to rid the country of unemployment.
What government need to reduce challenges facing businesses
First and foremost is electricity, which has been epileptic. Government must ensure we have stable electricity. The cost of diesel to power our generator initially was N150 per litre, that went to N190, to N200, but now it’s almost about N265. Assuming an employer has almost about 5,000 tanks, such would fill it with almost N6 million, with such expenses, government has to find solution to the problem presently being experienced in the power sector. If we have stable electricity in this country today, the economy will receive a bigger boost. Government must not shy away from it’s responsibility of fixing the problem in the power sector. Government should see it as a priority.
Other infrastructures include the roads. For example, we are considering going into haulage business. We can start with our water factory in Lagos, if we have good roads, we can be taken our water from Lagos to Ibadan and some other parts of the country. But where is the road. However what we have resolved now is to have another water factory in Ibadan to serve the hotel as well as sell within the Ibadan axis. But most importantly government must make electricity and good road network a priority. If the government can achieve the two, the nation’s economic problem would have been reasonably solved.
How COVID-19 impacted on food sector
We thank God. As leaders, we cannot be found wanting in discharging our responsibility. Though nobody ever envisaged that COVID-19 pandemic would come, but when it came, we thought of how we can survive amidst all the challenges that came with it. We thank God for sparing our lives. The first thing we did, we gave all our state councils, palliatives, as we discovered that things were so tough during the lockdown. Our Industry generally was affected as the factories could only operate skeletally. It had a devastating effect on the economy generally, but in our sector, we ensure that no worker lost his or her job and were paid their salary without any surcharge. All these depend on the negotiation skills of individual union with their Employers. At our negotiation, we made our employers to understand that we have been the one that had made the sector proud with our contribution in the past, hence we cannot be trown into the dustbin in the face of natural challenges. Our employers saw reason with us, we don’t experience cut off salary, allowances or jobs. The same applies in our secretariat, despite the lockdown, cutting down on the routine of work and not all our staff are reporting to duty because of the guidelines of COVID-19, but we still ensure that all staff get their salaries and benefits every month. During the Christmas we still gave out rice, vegetable oil and the rest to ensure that all have a blissful celebration.
Leaving good legacy
When I came into the office as President, and I wanted to sign the payroll, I looked at the payroll of the retirees and their money was N4,500. It was an embarrassment, hence I refused to sign it. Then I called my National Adminstrative Council (NAC) members that we need to correct the anomalies as it was a total disgrace for the union if an outsider should get knowledge of it. With the support of the NAC members, we changed it to N10,000. That’s the first one. Then we discovered that our past leaders anytime they are coming to the secretariat comes with public buses and go back the same way. My expectation as deputy president was that those leaders could be taken back to their houses in the union’s pool cars, but that wasn’t. So when we got in, we decided to give past presidents and secretaries who were still alive car gifts. Our founding president, comrade Osidipe, comrade Na dap and the general Secretary Comrade S. K. Oyebanjo. We presented the cars, Honda Hala to them at our first national executive council meeting. We also decided on giving our past elected leaders stipends every month, though the appointed retired officers normally have their allowances every month, we established the same for our past leaders. The past presidents, deputy presidents. Perhaps presidents, N100,000, while their deputies, N50,000. Equally, the past three leaders, we gave cars to, after four years, we changed the cars for them to Toyota Camry. We’ve even recently changed the Camry to highlander jeep to the existing past leader as some of them have died. I want to appeal to our serving colleagues to take care of their past leaders. If anyone serving now takes care of the past leaders when such persons are old, the incoming generation will equally take care of them. We shouldn’t see it as if we are never going to leave the stage, should not be rigid as life is never stagnant. It’s our time today, it will be others tomorrow. If our politicians, the governors, deputy governors are being paid pension, change their cars often, I believe the unions should emulate what is good and also take care of our own past leaders.
Influx of expatriate quotas
Now the issue of expatriates is not the issue for the NLC, but the affiliates. The unions must first make efforts before escalating it to the central labour centre. In the food sector, we are already tackling it and we are getting results.It depends on our negotiation ability, we have met with our Employers and told them we cannot tolerate the abuse, at a stage we have to involved the NLC, but presently in our sector, it has reduced drastically. For example in one of our companies, Lacasera, at one stage, the Managing Director and nothing less than 30 top employees were foreigners and some of them were not expatriates but technicians. But when we resisted, the Managing Director, now is a Nigerian, the finance director, a Nigerian, as well as in the haulage and most of the top posts in the company. The same in Cadbury, Yinka Adebote and in most of our companies. But we are still pushing because with the pronoucement of President Muhammad Buhari that jobs that Nigerians can do should not be given to foreigners, I don’t know why most of the companies are not heeding the order of the President. But, I believe the implementation lies with us, hence we need to cry out. We also need to commend the Minister of Labour and Employment, because he’s really interested in this issue of expatriate quotas. Anytime we cry to the Minister, he often tells the companies that it’s the president’s decision and there must be total compliance. In Coca-Cola, in the past for example, the Managing Director, the haulage Director, were expatriates, but now all of these positions are being occupied by Nigerians including our mega plants and they are all doing creditably fine.
The management now are just trying to be diplomatic, this is because in the food sector, we have rejected casualisation totally, all they are now doing is contract staffing. But we’ve faulted the idea of outsourcing to the third party instead of the companies engaging the workers directly. Because these workers being outsourced are expected to be part of the core business. What we are doing now is to ensure that all the workers engaged through outsourcing are unionized, they become our members and we negotiate on their behalf, that is what is obtainable in the food sector.
Handling crisis in the union
I thank God for giving me a very solid heart. Then transparency is very essential in union’s matter. What led to the present issue is over ambitious and they can be considered as money mongers, that’s the reason why I said we don’t have crisis, but aggrieved people and they are in clique, and in minority. We have about 13 state councils and one state council wants to upturn the decision of the whole house, that’s not going to work. The genesis of the whole problem was because we informed the members at the NEC held in Abuja that we have saved some substantial amount of money from our investment, then at the meeting all the NEC members agreed that we should reinvest the money looking at the present economic situation in the country so that our members would always have something to fall back on. But they held different opinion, that there’s no sense in diversification. Their own campaign is nothing but simply on Nigeria’s factor. They’ve been going from one point to the other. At the National Assembly, the committee on Labour told them to go back and settle with the union, at the public hearing of the National Assembly, they were told to go and use the internal process of grievance settlement in the union, which they refused to follow. Instead of that, they went to court, to their kinsman in their towns to say that they were cheated rather than using the internal machinery in the union. They sued the union in AIP in Lagos, left Lagos went to Abeokuta filed another case, went to National Industrial Court in Ibadan, to do the same. Since then they’ve gone to National Assembly, to Presidency, from there to the Police Headquarters. They were told by the AIG that’s it’s a family issue and should go back home and settle. But the thing is that there’s no justification for their grievance, it’s simply because they are impatient. We see them as enemy of progress and what they are saying by their act is that there’s no need for the union to get any asset, whereas we are losing members everyday. But the majority have already made the decision, no doubt the minority can have their say, but not their way. The organs of the union have already taken decision, that we should continue with the project. It was the highest organ of the union that made the decision for two years extension across the board, for the unit, branch, state and the national and I don’t know why they attached it to only president. Those people criticising it are also enjoying it because they supposed to have been removed from office before now.
The cause of insecurity is unemployment and the more reason why we have to continue to create more jobs. Graduates of five years are still looking for jobs. However I commend Nigerians, who are ready to take on jobs even with little salary before getting something better. I think we need to work hard to create more jobs then we can end the problem of insecurity in the country.